The Global Brain FAQ
Principia Cybernetica Web

The Global Brain FAQ

The following list of "Frequently Asked Questions" is largely inspired by the discussions on the global brain mailing list, although not all participants may agree with all the answers I have written down. Although I have tried to as accurately as possible render the ideas of other global brain researchers, this FAQ is obviously biased by my own understanding of the issue. I wish to thank V. Turchin, C. Joslyn and J. Glenn for the material they contributed, and I invite others to make further corrections or additions. More info at the website of the Global Brain Institute.



What is the global brain?

The "global brain" is the name given to the emerging intelligent network formed by all people on this planet, together with the computers and communication links that connect them together. Like a real brain, this network is an immensely complex, self-organizing system, that processes information, makes decisions, solves problems, learns new connections and discovers new ideas. It plays the role of a collective nervous system for the whole of humanity. No person, organization or computer is in control of this system: its "thought" processes are distributed over all its components.

What is the global superorganism?

The metaphor of the information network as global brain can be extended to the whole of society as a global organism. If the information processes in the network constitute the "mind" of this system, all people together with their artefacts (tools, buildings, cars, etc.) form its "body". Since individual people are organisms themselves, this encompassing system is an organism consisting of organisms, that is, a super-organism. The superorganism not only has a nervous system for processing information, but a metabolism for processing matter and energy: resources such as ores, water, oil are converted via various industrial processes into specialized goods and services, transported to the place where they are needed, used, and finally recycled or excreted as waste. Miller's "living systems theory" provides a detailed correspondence between the different subsystems of a society and those of an organism.

Under what other names is the GB known?

Different people have proposed many different names for this concept of an cognitive system at the planetary level: planetary brain, world brain, global mind, noosphere, social brain, and super-brain are some of the roughly equivalent synonyms. For the global superorganism, there are some less obvious equivalent terms, such as Metaman (proposed by G. Stock), cybion (J. de Rosnay), the super-being (V. Turchin), and social organism.

Who first came up with the global brain idea?

As the variety of names indicates, many people have independently developed the idea of society as an organism with its own nervous system, each adding their own insights to our understanding of the global brain. Simplistic analogies between a social system and the body, such as "the king is the head", "the farmers are the feet", date back at least to the Ancient Greeks and the Middle Ages. This analogy provided inspiration to the 19th century founders of sociology, being developed perhaps most extensively by Herbert Spencer (see his "Society is an Organism"). The evolutionary theologist Teilhard de Chardin was probably the first to focus on the mental organization of this social organism, which he called the "noosphere". Around the same time, the science fiction writer H. G. Wells proposed the concept of a "world brain" as a unified system of knowledge, accessible to all. The term "global brain" seems to have been first used in 1983 by P. Russell. The first people to have made the connection between this concept and the emerging Internet may well be G. Mayer-Kress and J. de Rosnay. F. Heylighen, J. Bollen and B. Goertzel appear to be the first researchers to have proposed concrete methods that might turn the Internet into an intelligent, brain-like network.

Is the global brain a higher level of evolution?

Although the analogy between organism and society can be applied even to primitive societies, it becomes clearly more applicable as technology develops. As transport and communication become more efficient, different parts of global society become more interdependent. At the same time, the variety of ideas, specializations, and subcultures increases. This simultaneous integration and differentiation creates an increasingly coherent system, functioning at a much higher level of complexity. The emergence of such a higher order system may be called a "metasystem transition" (a concept introduced by V. Turchin). Examples of metaystem transitions include the origin of life and the development of multicellular organisms out of single celled ones. The appearance of a global brain, functioning at a much higher level of intelligence than its human components, seems a prime example of such a metasystem transition.

Which technologies are being developed for the GB?

To make the global information network function really at a higher level of intelligence, instead of merely storing and transmitting data, new technologies are needed. These technologies are inspired by our understanding of how the human brain works: how it learns associations, thinks, makes decisions, etc. At the same time, these technologies must take into account that the information on the net is not centrally controlled, but distributed over millions of people and documents, with billions of cross-connections. Thus, cognitive processes at the level of the GB must allow all this chaotic, heterogeneous information to interact so that collective patterns can appear. Some of the more traditional technologies include the various methods of keyword-based information retrieval. Others may use techniques derived from artificial intelligence, such as software agents, neural networks or data mining. Still others, such as collaborative filtering or groupware, enhance collective problem solving.

Where can I find more information about the GB?

Several books, papers and websites discuss the global brain idea and its many ramifications. Most of these can be accessed via the "references on the Global Brain" page. To quickly get into the heart of the matter, read this FAQ and the web pages linked to it, and then perhaps some overview papers, such as "The World-Wide Web as a Super-Brain" (short), "The Global Super-organism", or "WorldWideBrain" (both long). For a more gentle, non-technical introduction with more background information you can read books addressed to a wide audience, such as Russell's "The Global Brain Awakens" (emphasis on philosophy and consciousness), Stock's "Metaman" (social and economic evolution), or de Rosnay's "The Symbiotic Man" (new sciences and technologies). If you have specific questions that are not answered in this FAQ, you may try searching the archives of the global brain mailing list.

How can I participate in GB discussions?

If you would like to explore this topic further, you can apply to join the global brain mailing list, which is devoted to discussion via email of all social, technological or philosophical issues related to the GB. As we try to maintain a high signal-to-noise ratio, the list is closed, and can only be posted to by people that have been manually subscribed by the listmanager. To apply for subscription, you must submit a form including a clear statement of your interest in GB matters, so that others may get to know you. If your submission is accepted, you will start receiving message posted to the list, and be able to send messages yourself. You can automatically unsubscribe at any moment.

What is the Global Brain Group?

The Global Brain Group is a small assembly of people who are doing high level research about the GB, including most authors who have published papers or books about the concept. It was founded in 1996 by F. Heylighen and B. Goertzel, with Heylighen as chair. At the moment it basically functions as a "behind the scenes" steering committee for the Global Brain mailing list, but it may take further initiatives, such as organizing congresses or publishing books. Its main function is to provide an "authoritative" body that can make its voice heard when important decisions need to be made. As the GB will affect more and more technological, social and economic phenomena, it will become increasingly important for such a body to exist.

Related ideas

What is collective/symbiotic intelligence?

Collective intelligence is the idea that a group or collective can be more intelligent than its members. The best known examples are social insects, such as ants, termites or bees, which are individually dumb, but capable of surprisingly intelligent behavior when functioning as a group. Even when the individual members are quite intelligent themselves, the group may be even more intelligent. The intelligence of the GB will be collective, as it arises from the interactions between millions of individuals.Symbiotic intelligence, a term introduced by N. Johnson, is the idea that intelligence can also emerge from the interactions between essentially different components, such as people and computers (see the Symbiotic Intelligence FAQ). As J. de Rosnay proposes, people will live in symbiosis with this surrounding network of technological systems, and out of this symbiosis, a higher level intelligence may emerge.

What is a distributed knowledge system?

Adistributed knowledge system (DKS), a term proposed by C. Joslyn, is an environment in which communities of agents (human and/or computational) interact with networked information resources. DKS have introduced fundamentally new structures: human-machine interaction at the collective level, not just between a person and a computer, but also interaction within the user/agent community and among the information resources themselves. We increasingly find examples of DKS around us, not just in the Web and the Internet, but in corporate Intranets, digital repositories, and electronic markets. Our experience with the growth of the Internet has shown that the unprecedented new properties of DKS to combine computation, storage, and communication are revolutionizing the way that knowledge is generated, organized, and transmitted. As the dynamics of a DKS is very different from the one of a traditional, centralized computer system, it requires extensive research, using a variety of new methods. Such research is being done at the DKSM team at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

How is this related to Artificial Intelligence?

Although many of the technologies supporting the global brain were first developed by Artificial Intelligence (AI) researchers, AI and GB research differ in several basic aspects. AI's goal is to create an independently intelligent system, whereas GB research tries to enhance existing individual and collective intelligence. This may be called IA, intelligence amplification, rather than AI. By starting from the enormous amount of information available in documents and people's heads, the GB approach avoids the bottleneck of knowledge acquisition which has hampered AI. Moreover, the emphasis of GB research is on open, interactive, self-organizing systems, rather than on the closed, preprogrammed systems of traditional AI.

How does the GB relate to Gaia?

Gaia (the Greek goddess of the Earth) is the name given to the hypothesis that the planet Earth itself is a living organism. This organism would be able to regulate its own essential variables, such as temperature and composition of the atmosphere. Compared to the superorganism as we have defined it, this "Gaian" organism seems very primitive, with a level of intelligence comparable perhaps to the one of a bacterium. At present, Gaia and the global superorganism are still largely independent, and the effect of society on the global ecosystem appears unsustainable. However, several authors have argued that Gaia and the superorganism will evolve to a state of symbiosis, that may eventually lead to a merging of the two. Thus, the GB would not only form a brain for humanity, but for the whole of Planet Earth.

What is conscious-technology?

In his book "Future Mind", the futurist J. Glenn proposed the thesis that as we develop ever more sophisticated methods of sensing, perceiving and processing information, the technology to support these processes and the enhanced human consciousness will increasingly merge. Machines are becoming more humanlike, thanks to speech recognition, AI, and software agents. And as humans use more technologies, such as implants, drugs, or wearable computers to support their body and mind, we become less wholly organic. When the trend of humans integrating technology on and in their bodies and the trend of artificial intelligence being incorporated into the environment become difficult to distinguish, then human consciousness and technological support will have become a continuous system: Conscious-Technology. This will reduce the time and effort that it takes to get from a thought to a connection to an objective insight. That leads to greater intelligence and awareness, or what mystics call "enlightenment".

Does the GB have a spiritual dimension?

Although most researchers have addressed the GB idea from a scientific or technological point of view, authors like Teilhard de Chardin and Peter Russell have explored some of its spiritual aspects. Similar to many mystical traditions, the GB idea holds the promise of a much enhanced level of consciousness and a state of deep synergy or union that encompasses humanity as a whole. Theists might view this state of holistic consciousness as a union with God. Humanists might see it as the creation, by humanity itself, of an entity with God-like powers. Followers of the Gaia hypothesis have suggested that the "living Earth" of which we are all part deserves awe and worship; it therefore could form the basis of a secular, ecologically inspired religion. The Global Brain vision could conceivably offer a similar sense of belonging to a larger whole and of an encompassing purpose.

What is the Singularity?

In mathematics, a singularity is a point where an otherwise continuous function gets an infinite value. In this singular point, normal mathematical properties no longer apply. The mathematician and science fiction author Vernor Vinge proposed that if we would represent the development of humanity by a curve and extrapolate this curve into the near future, it would show such a singularity. This would indicate a transition to a wholly different regime, where different laws apply. Vinge suggested that the trigger for this singularity might be the creation of an artificial intelligence able to create an even more intelligent system. This is not unlike the idea of a global brain becoming intelligent enough to improve its own thinking. This would mark the "metasystem transition" to a higher level of evolution, way beyond present human intelligence.

GB technologies

Can there be a GB without information technology?

In principle, it is possible to imagine a GB even in the absence of information technology. As ideas ("memes") are communicated from person to person, they evolve, assimilating the contributions and points of views of myriads of people. Thus, society has some kind of a collective mind, constantly developing new thoughts that cannot be reduced to any individual contribution. However, in the absence of modern technology, this "collective thought" required decades to develop any new insights. Global media have made this process much more efficient, allowing ideas to spread and evolve in hours rather than decades. This turns the GB from an interesting analogy into a phenomenon that can be concretely experienced.

What is the role of the Internet?

Although we could imagine GB processes supported by various types of communication technologies, such as fax, interactive TV, or a centralized bulletin board style system, like the French Minitel, or the former CompuServe, the Internet is particularly well-suited for the GB. The reason is the Internet's decentralized, self-organizing nature, where information will travel through whatever route available, bypassing network nodes that are down, or simply don't allow access to that kind of information.

What is the role of the World-Wide Web?

The web is the hypermedia interface to the information residing on the Internet. The web is a standard that allows network documents to contain information in various media, such as text, pictures, and sounds, and most importantly hyperlinks to other documents. These links allow you to access a related document by simply clicking on a text or picture. This document may reside on the same computer or on a computer in a different continent, without this making any difference to the user. Thus, the web makes it possible to seamlessly integrate documents that are distributed over the entire planet, and created by people who may not even be aware of each others' existence. What holds these documents together is not their geographic location, but their degree of association: links will connect mutually relevant pages. In that respect, this hypermedia architecture is similar to the one of our brain, where concepts are connected by associations, and the corresponding assemblies of neurons by synapses.

How can the web be made more intelligent?

The web as sketched above functions like a huge associative memory for society. However, the brain is more than a static memory: it can learn and think. Learning takes place by the strengthening of associations that are used often, and the weakening of rarely used associations. Through learning, the brain constantly enhances its organization and increases its store of knowledge. Thinking happens by the activation of concepts and the "spreading" of this activation to related concepts, in proportion to the strength of association. Thinking allows the brain to solve problems, to make decisions, and to be creative, that is, discover combinations of concepts never encountered before. By making simple changes to its static architecture, we can implement similar processes on the web, thus spectacularly enhancing its intelligence and overall usefulness.

What is web learning?

In the brain, learning follows the rule of Hebb: if two neurons are activated in close succession, the strength of their connection is increased. A similar procedure has been applied to the web by J. Bollen and F. Heylighen: if two web pages are consulted by the same user within a short interval, either the existing hyperlink between the pages gets a higher weight, or a new link is created. On any given page, only the links with a minimum weight are shown. Thus, links that are not sufficiently reinforced may eventually disappear. The result is that such a learning web constantly adapts to the way it is used, reorganizing its pattern of links to best reflect the preferences of its users. In practice, this creates direct links between the pages that are most strongly related, bypassing less interesting detours, and clustering pages together according to their mutual relevance. As such, the web becomes much more efficient to use, by assimilating the collective knowledge and desires of its users.

What roles can software agents play?

The simplest way to implement web "thinking" is to create a specialized software agent. This is a program that works as a "delegate" of its user, autonomously collecting information that is likely to be interesting to its user. The agent can learn the user's preferences simply by observing which pages the user actively uses, or it can receive specific instructions (e.g. keywords) from the user. Given that preference profile, the agent can locate pages that satisfy the profile, and then use "spreading activation" to find further, related documents. It does this by "activating" pages in proportion to their degree of interestingness, and then propagating that activation according to the hyperlinks and their weights as learned from other users. Thus, it can discover new documents, that may not contain any of the initially given keywords, but that are still highly relevant to the query. This is especially useful when the user cannot clearly formulate the query, but only has an intuitive feel for it.

How does this relate to collaborative filtering?

Collaborative filtering or recommendation systems is a technique by which options are recommended to a user because these options were appreciated by other users with a similar preference profile. It is commonly used in web shops, such as Amazon, which for any book or CD in their catalog provide a list of other items bought by the same people, and which even allow you to get a personalized list of recommendations, based on the items that you appreciate. Collaborative filtering can be viewed as a simpler, more static version of web learning with spreading activation. In both cases, items are associated because they are appreciated by the same users, and recommendations are generated on the basis of a few personal preferences. The difference is that web learning takes into account the changing context of web surfing: a page which is relevant for you at this moment, may no longer be that relevant an hour later when you have gotten into a wholly different subject.

How can the human-GB interfacebe improved?

With these technologies, the web would become a giant, collective memory, which you could consult at any moment to get an answer to your questions, however unusual or vaguely formulated they may be. Its thought processes would always be ready to enhance and extend your own thinking. To fully harness the power of this global brain, it should be constantly available, requiring a minimum of effort. The rapid spread of mobile communication already offers universal access to the web, wherever you are. Further miniaturization will lead to wearable computers, incorporated in your clothing, with images projected on your glasses. Automatic recognition of speech, gestures and even emotions will make communication with the web much easier and more intuitive. In the longer term, you can even imagine direct connections between your computer and your brain, through neural interfaces. This would allow you to communicate with the GB simply by thinking, having your thoughts immediately sensed, understood, and enhanced. Your thoughts could also be directly turned into actions, as when you use the GB to order a pizza, get a taxi, or switch on the heating so that it would be nice and warm by the time you come home.

How quickly can these technologies become reality?

Apart from the direct brain-computer interface, all these technologies already exist, either as prototypes or as applications working in a more limited environment. What remains to be done is further streamlining, and above all integration into a single, coordinated whole. This will be most tricky for web learning. Although it is easy to implement web learning on a single web server, creating links between documents residing on different servers requires these servers to agree on a protocol for exchanging information and making changes in their organization. Setting universally accepted standards for such web learning will be a complex process, fraught with technical, economical and political problems. This difficulty may be circumvented by creating a huge centralized database that keeps track of all links and their changing weights, and is fed by information about the browsing behavior of millions of users (similar to the databases kept by search engines such as Google, or recommendation services such as Alexa). However, such a centralized database would fit poorly with the distributed, self-organizing nature of the GB idea, and is therefore likely to offer only a short term solution.

What benefits can we expect from the GB?

Why do we need a GB to tackle information overload?

As more and more documents, services, and people move to the Internet, retrieving, sending and receiving information becomes in practice effortless and free. Whereas information used to be scarce, and therefore costly, it is now increasingly abundant. This means that ever larger amounts of potentially interesting messages, documents and announcements will clamor for our attention. However, attention, unlike information, will remain scarce: our brain is simply unable to attend to more than a few dozen messages a day. Therefore, we will need support from a system that is capable to sort through billions of information items and select those that are most relevant to our particular situation and interests.

What advantages does a GB have over search engines?

Presently, the most common approach to tackle information overload uses software filters, such as agents or search engines, that only retrieve documents fulfilling certain criteria. However, these criteria are based on a limited number of rigidly defined components, such as keywords. The value of a document is difficult to determine in terms of such components. For example, a relevant document may use different keywords and will therefore not be found, or a worthless document may contain all the right keywords and therefore be returned as a primary "hit". This explains why search engines often return loads of pages that are not relevant to your query. Value is ultimately determined by the people using and appreciating a document. The GB get its knowledge from the implicit evaluations made by its users collectively. Therefore, the GB is a much more universal and flexible instrument for selecting relevant items.

How does the GB relate to the new economy?

The market is the collective system of transactions that helps supply to match demand, and thus to fulfill the need for products and services of the collective customer. The traditional market is rather inefficient, requiring a huge infrastructure of middlemen, specialized organizations such as stock exchanges and auctions, and communication channels. The Internet allows all such transactions to take place much more quickly and transparently, with less cost and effort. This strongly reduces "friction", making the economy more efficient so that demand can be satisfied more rapidly, more accurately, and at a lower cost. The GB will not only facilitate direct communication between buyers and sellers, but help buyers to find the best value (e.g. through shopping agents to compare prices), and help sellers to get the best price (e.g. through automatic auctioning systems). The net effect is that growth increases, while inflation and economic instability decrease. Moreover, there will be less waste because of unsold items or goods shipped far away when there is demand around the corner.

Can the GB help overcome conflicts?

The GB in principle provides a universal channel through which people from all countries, languages and cultures of this world can communicate. This will make it easier to reduce mutual ignorance and misunderstandings, or discuss and resolve differences of opinion. The ease with which good ideas can spread over the whole planet will make it easier to reach global consensus about issues that concern everybody. The free flow of information will make it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to plan suppression or war. The more efficient economy will indirectly reduce the threat of conflict, since there will be less competition for scarce resources.

Can the GB help us solve global problems?

Technology alone will not solve all the problems that threaten our planet: in the end, people will have to agree about concrete policies to tackle e.g. global warming or poverty. Yet, the GB can support not only the process of reaching consensus on a plan of action, but also its practical implementation. For example, combating infectious diseases or pollution will require extensive monitoring of the number of infections or concentration of polluting gases in different regions. Information collected by local observers or by electronic sensors can directly enter the GB, be processed to reveal underlying trends, and be forwarded to the people or institutions responsible for taking direct action.

Will the GB make people more happy?

Statistics about life satisfaction in different countries show that people are most happy when their society provides them with sufficient health, wealth, security, knowledge, freedom and equality. The GB can directly or indirectly contribute to each of these fundamental values. The GB itself will provide universal access to all of humanity's knowledge, and thus indirectly increase people's freedom to choose their own path, while providing them with more equal opportunities. Its effect on the economy will directly create more wealth, and indirectly resources to invest in medical care, education, safety measures, etc. Its support for the creation of new knowledge will boost science and technology, and thus help them to solve a whole range of medical, social and ecological problems.

Should we be afraid of the GB?

Doesn't the GB reduce humanity to an insect colony or to the Borg?

The use of the terms "collective intelligence" or "superorganism" and the analogy between web learning techniques and the way ant colonies lay out a network of trails may invite the comparison of the GB with a "hive mind", that is, a collective in which the members all think and behave the same, lacking any autonomy or personal identity. This frightening prospect is most vividly illustrated by the "Borg", the race of cyborgs imagined by the creators of the science fiction series "Star Trek". The GB, on the contrary, derives its intelligence precisely from the diversity of the people that take part in it. If everybody would make the same choices, then the GB would not be smarter than a single individual. It is because different people have different points of view and different experiences that together they can tackle more complex problems. This intuitive insight was formulated more precisely by the cyberneticist Ashby as the "law of requisite variety". It even applies to ants: if ants would always follow the paths laid down by their fellow ants, and never diverge to create a path of their own, then the colony would starve as soon the food sources on their existing paths would be exhausted. This is beautifully illustrated byN. Johnson's simulation of collective problem solving: the more diverse the individual approaches, the better the collective solution.

Doesn't web learning impose a "tyranny of the majority"?

As web learning algorithms promote links that many users like and weaken links that few users like, it may seem that minority views or non-conformist ideas will be suppressed, thus reducing diversity in the web. First, it must be noted that web learning only suggests additional links, while leaving the links created by the webpage's author in place. Thus, it only adds possibilities; it never reduces them. Second, the links that are promoted by web learning are those appreciated by the community of people that use a particular set of web pages. Different websites are visited by different communities, and therefore their links will adapt to the tastes of that particular community, rather than to the taste of the "general public" or to the "largest common denominator". Thus, even the smallest, most eccentric minorities, such as followers of the Heaven's Gate cult, Trotskyites, researchers in quantum gravity or lovers of sweaty feet, can use web learning to find kindred spirits and cross-connect all documents relating to their idiosyncratic interests, thus effectively increasing diversity. Finally, even if you do not fit into any of the communities that have shaped the web, techniques such as collaborative filtering or spreading activation still allow you to get personalized recommendations, which are different from anybody else's but still try to use as much as possible of the experience of people with interests similar to yours.

What about privacy? Wouldn't the GB become a high-tech version of "Big Brother"?

Since the GB becomes more effective by monitoring user behavior, it may seem that it will get to know everything an individual has done on the net, including actions that this user would rather keep private, such as visiting a pornographic site, or communicating with a competitor of his or her employer. However, web learning algorithms do not need to know individual activities. They only need to know the collective frequencies of certain actions, e.g. that most users who visited the "Playboy" site also visited the "Penthouse" site, independently of who these users are. In fact, the algorithms do not even register the identity of users, as this would merely burden memory. If these algorithms would be applied to the web as a whole, a standard will need to be agreed upon to anonymize user data. This should ensure that a webserver would only get the information that a user X went from page A to page B, without being able to find out who user X is. (note that such a standard does not exist now, in the absence of a true GB, and that many firms do collect such information about their customers and users). This is similar to the algorithms used for digital cash payments, which certify that a certain amount of money has been transferred, without allowing you to track where that money came from (unlike a credit card transaction). In spite of this anonymity of web learning, the algorithms can still provide personalized recommendations based on the user's preference profile, but this profile is kept strictly on the user's own computer, far from the prying eyes of others.

Won't the GB restrict our freedom?

Another recurrent fear is that belonging to an encompassing, collective system, such as the GB, will limit individual freedom. It is true that for a GB to be effective, the people participating in it will need to agree about a set of common standards or rules to facilititate communication and cooperation. For example, the present net would not work without standards such as HTML, HTTP, and TCP/IP, and basic rules of "netiquette" such as a restrictions on hackings or the spread of computer viruses and worms. However, well-chosen rules will increase rather than decrease freedom. This can be explained by an analogy with the traffic code. Without such traffic rules as the obligation to drive on the right hand side of the road (or left, in Great Britain), traffic would be much more dangerous and more easily obstructed, effectively decreasing your freedom to jump into your car and drive wherever the roads may lead you. Giving up your freedom to drive on the left hand side of the road seems lie a small concession if that allows you to drive safely and smoothly. Since the same rules will democratically apply to everyone, the net result will be that dominant organizations, governments, or corporations will have less power to censor or impose their rules on the people who use the net. This loss of power will understandably be resented by these organizations, but should be welcomed by individuals as it will increase their freedom and autonomy.

Can the GB force me to do anything I don't want?

No, the GB in the narrow sense of an intelligent web cannot make you do anything against your will. It only gives advice, which you can take or leave. But since that advice will generally be based on much more experience than you will have gathered yourself, in most cases you will be glad to follow it. The GB in the wider sense of the global community interacting via the Internet can decide to adopt general standards, rules, or laws, e.g. restricting the production of carbon dioxide or of child pornography. These rules you will have to obey just like you have to obey the laws of your country. But similar, and most likely more rigid, rules would probably have been adopted in the absence of a GB.

Cannot GB technology be abused?

All technology can be used for good or for bad: drugs can be used to cure or to poison, tools to build or to destroy, mass media to educate or to brain-wash. Similarly, the GB will help people to reach their goals by providing the most relevant information, whether these goals are positive or negative. Thus, people can use the GB to find out how to cure their cancer, protect their community from pollution, or increase the yield of their crops, but they may also use it to discover how to build a bomb, spread racist propaganda, or find kindred spirits to start up a hate group. This problem already exists with the present Internet and other communication technologies. It will require a subtle, finely balanced approach that minimizes dangers to the public while maintaining as much as possible freedom of expression and respect for privacy. Some existing partial solutions are web browsers that restrict access to websites that, on the basis of keywords or user evaluations, are deemed inappropriate for children or other vulnerable groups. With GB technologies it may become easier to recognize "inappropriate" websites, but in the end it will need to be a political decision which restrictions are imposed.

Could the GB escape from our control?

The GB is controlled by all the people that are part of it. It is not an autonomous system that could suddenly decide no longer to obey commands. The GB's intelligence, indeed its "mind" or "personality", emerges from the actions of all people collectively. If the people would decide no longer to use the network, then the GB would stop to exist. Perhaps the best analogy is with the market: the goods and services supplied in the economy are controlled by the demand variable, which represents the collective desires of all consumers. Like the market, the GB will generally do what people would like it to do, but, being a complex, self-organizing system, its reactions will not always be predictable, or even wholly desirable. In markets, such side-effects (like booms and busts, or the promotion of inequality or pollution) are generally controlled by agreed-upon regulations, taxes, or subsidies. Similarly, it may be necessary now and then to intervene in the evolution of the GB by changing some of its standards, or incorporating novel rules or safeguards in its algorithms. This is probably best implemented by a supranational, regulating body representing all users, such as the present World-Wide Web Consortium.

Isn't there a danger that the artificial intelligence systems we are creating now will eventually overpower and replace humanity?

Many publications, from Karel Capek's 1921 book that introduced the word "robot" toBill Joy's recent article in Wired, have warned us that artificial creatures may escape our control and eventually annihilate us. These scenarios seem groundless from the point of view of the GB. The Global Brain is not meant to replace humanity, but to complement or augment it. The history of evolution teaches us that the instruments created at some stage and found to enhance survivability are not discarded, but perfected and used in metasystem transitions as well-debugged and tested blocks. This can be extended to the evolution of human society. The human brain is a product of many millions years of trial and error. To throw this away would be anti-evolutionary. The future will belong to those of our descendants who will build on our existing brain, perfecting, expanding and modifying it, but not replacing it by something completely different, such as today's computer hardware. Control will always remain in human hands. To put it briefly, something plus brain will be always greater than just something. Unfortunately, this simple formula does not prevent humanity from self-destruction, which remains a real possibility.

GB and social evolution

Can the development of a GB be avoided?

Given the present trends of globalization, increasing importance of communication and information technologies, and increasing interdependence and exchange of ideas between different countries and cultures, it seems likely that something similar to a GB will necessarily evolve, whether we consciously want it or not. There are good evolutionary reasons why such a global integration will take place. The main mechanism is that individuals and groups taking part in an emerging GB will get such a competitive advantage over those not taking part that the others will have to imitate them if they don't want to be left behind.

Will everybody want to become part of the GB?

It is conceivable that certain individuals, groups or countries will consciously choose to stay outside the GB. This is similar to the way hermits, tramps or adventurers have been living "outside" of society during most of history, or to the rare people in our present society who refuse to use a car, telephone or TV. In principle, there is no reason why the GB should not tolerate the existence of such individuals or small groups that do not really contribute to the GB and do not follow its rules. The only condition will be that such outsiders should not harm or endanger those inside, as may be the case for criminals or people with mental disturbances. In practice, though, it seems unlikely that many people would choose that option. The benefits of belonging to the GB are so great that it will be very difficult to resist their lure.

Couldn't the GB split into rival GBs?

It is also conceivable that different federations of countries will be formed, each following their own set of rules on how to develop a shared intelligent network, while minimizing exchanges with each other. This happened to some degree during the Cold War when capitalist countries were economically and ideologically separated from the communist block. However, the Cold War has shown that two competing blocks, even if they seem roughly matched in size, are unlikely to remain at the same level of development. Because technological progress is an ever accelerating, exponential process, small differences in speed of development will lead to increasing gaps, until it becomes for everybody clear that the one block is more successful than the other one. This will put increasing pressure on the less successful block to open up towards the more successful one, in order to assimilate its successes. Moreover, increasing global exchanges of ideas, goods and services make it increasingly unlikely that strict separations between countries or groups can be created or maintained. Thus, it seems very unlikely that the GB would ever split into separate systems.

Won't the poor be excluded?

If is often stated that information technology increases the gap between haves and have-nots, and more particularly between those that have access to information and those that haven't. Although GB technologies will be adopted most quickly by the wealthiest and best educated part of the population, this won't stop the underdogs from joining a little later. Internet technologies are relatively inexpensive to install, compared to e.g. roads, electricity or running water, and are becoming even less expensive at a staggering rate. Moreover, as the GB becomes more intelligent, it will become ever easier to use, requiring an ever lower education level for entry. Speech technologies will soon make the web available even for illiterates, and may teach them to read and write in the process. Thus, the GB is a cheap and efficient way to increase the education level, access to information, and economic competitiveness in all regions of the world, helping Third World countries to bridge the gap with the wealthiest countries.

GB and the future of humanity

Can anybody predict how the GB will develop?

Nobody knows what the future of humanity or society will be, and nobody can clearly imagine what an eventual global brain will look like. The underlying phenomena are much too complex and unpredictable. Yet, since it seems likely that something like a GB will evolve, whether we like it or not, it is worth trying to understand as much as possible about it, so that we may steer it in the best possible direction. This we can only do by reasoning through analogies with the evolution of similar complex systems, such as the human brain.

Will the GB have its own goals and values?

As noted before, the GB is not an autonomous entity, but a system emerging from the knowledge, actions and preferences of all people. Thus, the overall goals and values that will guide the GB's decisions will be those of humanity. Again, the simplest analogy may be the market. The market's overall goal is to satisfy demand, and demand is simply a word for what the public collectively desires. Thus, if the public wants to reduce pollution, the GB will lead people preferentially to non-polluting products or services. However, having a much larger "brain capacity" than an individual, the GB will not only try to realize the goals that a majority agrees upon but the myriads of idiosyncratic goals of each of its users. If you want to hear more early jazz, the GB will try to make more early jazz accessible to you, while at the same time it may make more baroque music available to me. Thus, the GB's value system will be much more complex than that of any human individual.

Will the GB have feelings?

Cybernetically, feelings or emotions can be understood as the reactions of a goal-seeking system to a situation that may either help it (positive feelings) or hinder it (negative feelings) in achieving its goals. The strength of a feeling, that is the degree of "arousal" or "activation", corresponds to the degree of "unexpectedness" of the situation: routine events will not create much excitement, but a sudden surprise or danger will release a lot of activation. In that sense, the GB too will have emotions. Events, objects or people that have a strong association with the GB's goals, either positively or negatively, will arouse a lot of "activation" travelling along the GB's virtual neurons, and be able to create a strong reaction by mobilizing people, machines or resources to tackle the problem or use the opportunity. For example, a sudden danger, such as the appearance of a new virus (computer or biological), will have an immediate influence on all activities going on in the GB, as millions of people will suddenly start looking for information on that virus or discuss what to do about it. For a more concrete example, the death of Princess Diana a few years ago has, stimulated by the extensive media coverage, released a collective feeling of grief in millions of people.

Will the GB become conscious?

Feelings can be seen as a lower level of awareness or consciousness of what is going on in a system's environment. In that sense, the GB will be conscious of all important events affecting its goals. A higher level of consciousness, self-awareness, would require that the GB could reflect on its own functioning. The GB in the wider sense of the global community is slowly becoming aware of itself. The GB in he narrow sense, as a system of algorithms to make the web more intelligent, at present does not include such a capacity for self-monitoring. However, there is no in principle obstacle towards implementing such a capacity. Simple AI systems capable of self-reflection have already been built. The problem is that if we wish to give the "narrow" GB such a capacity for self-improvement, we will have to make sure that that will not allow it to develop in a way that we don't want. But to achieve that, we (that is, the GB in the wider sense) will ourselves have to become more conscious of the dangers and opportunities involved.

Will we able to understand the GB's thinking?

As the GB will process the knowledge and intentions of millions of people, the conclusions it reaches and the decisions it makes will in practice be too complex for a single person to comprehend. Yet, there is no in principle limitation on understanding any specific conclusion: it is just that as we ask the GB for all the reasons because of which it made a particular recommendation, the list will grow up to the point where it will become too much for our own, much more limited brain to grasp. Still, an intelligent GB should be able to maximally simplify its reasoning, focusing on the most important factors and filtering out the less important ones, so as to make its thought processes as transparent as possible. The fact that we will never be able to understand everything is nothing to be worried about: nobody can claim to fully understand what is going on in society, but that hasn't prevented most people from being relatively satisfied with their life there.

Would the GB allow uploading the human mind in a computer, thus making it immortal?

At present, the exchange of information between people and computers in the Global Brain occurs through a physical medium connecting our brain with the network. However, it is conceivable that the contents of our mind would be separated from our physical brain, and stored directly into a computer, part of the GB network. This is called "uploading". It would allow our mind to survive long after our physical body has decayed: cybernetic immortality. There are no theoretical reasons why the content of a human mind cannot be treated as any other kind of information that can be copied and stored in various media. Usually the huge amount of neurons in the brain is seen as an obstacle. But it seems universally accepted now that the main functional units of the brain -- the modes of mind -- are spread over all its neurons. This makes it possible for the brain to restore its functioning even after removal of considerable portions of its substance, which would be impossible if it depended critically on a few neurons, like the functioning of our computers depends on every bit in their memory. The question is: What are those modes of mind? What is the mental code? We do not yet know that, but one can bet that we -- Humanity -- shall crack it, as we did with the genetic code. In fact, the web learning techniques at the basis of our present view of the GB can be seen as a first step in that direction, as they are able to build an increasingly accurate model of a user's interests and experiences. After a sufficiently long training, a software agent that has assimilated its user's way of thinking might start behaving indistinguishably from that user. If then the user would die, the agent may continue to interact with the web, representing its long-dead owner's personality and desires as if it were his or her immortal "ghost".

Copyright© 2000 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Nov 8, 2000 (modified)
Aug 9, 2000 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory

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